EPA issues new national standards on coal ash

December 30, 2014

Last week, the EPA finalized their ruling on the Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities, which is intended to provide a guideline for the safe handling and storage of coal combustion residuals (CCR), commonly known as coal ash, from coal-fired power plants. The rule impacted technical requirements for landfills holding CCR and is meant to mitigate the risk of leaks reaching into the ground water from wet storage facilities and prevent coal dust entering the atmosphere from dry storage. 

According to NPR's Christopher Joyce, coal-fired power plants produce more than 130 million tons of the coal ash each year. The CCR is stored nearby in giant ponds, the subjects of concern for environmentalists for some time, as a number have failed in recent years. 

In 2008, a large coal ash spill occurred at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) power plant. The contents of the pond flooded more than 300 acres, and caused CCR to be released into the Emory and Clinch rivers. The TVA has since spent more than $1.2 billion in cleanup efforts. 

With the most recent ruling from the EPA, CCR will be allowed to be treated similar to regular garbage, with states left to develop their own standards. The EPA argued that this will allow communities to enact the protections they see fit.

"It does what we hoped to accomplish … in a very aggressive but reasonable and pragmatic way," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a press statement.

In addition, the new rules will increase monitoring for leaks and control blowing dust, and require companies to make testing results public. However, the regulations do not cover operations at power plants that have been shuttered, and will allow existing landfills that do not meet the new standards to continue to operate, sparking commentary from environmental groups.

"We had to go to court to force EPA to issue this first-ever coal ash rule, and unfortunately, we will be back in court to force coal plants to clean up their ash dumps and start disposing of their toxic waste safely," EarthJustice attorney Lisa Evans told Fox News. 

The EPA left if unclear how long individual states will have to draft their CCR management regulations. Tony Hatton, Kentucky's solid waste division director, told the source that many plants have been moving away from the practice of storage of ash in ponds, and have been increasingly electing to store it in dry landfills. Hatton explained that this strategy helps reduce the likelihood of groundwater contamination.

As a number of groups continue to call for more stringent regulations, states and industry stakeholders can benefit from the insight of environmental consultants to ensure that their storage and containment strategies are comprehensive.